13 March 2011

A Tale of Two Radio Stations

Until about a year ago, the Boston area was graced with two major radio stations that played classical music. WCRB was a private, for-profit, commercial station that played classical music twenty-four hours a day. WGBH was a public, government-funded station that was partially dedicated to classical music; it played music for several hours during the day, but posted on the flanks of its classical programming platoons of fifth columnists--which is to say, programs from National Public Radio (NPR).

Then, in December, 2009, WCRB was swallowed up by WGBH, a Jonah to the Leviathan. I never really learned the details. I know that WCRB had changed ownership in 2006 (and had, to my annoyance, moved to facilities with a transmission footprint that did not reliably reach my radio at work), so perhaps the company that owned WCRB no longer found it profitable to continue. There were shocking rumors that the station would "go country." In any case, in order to provide the "public service" of keeping twenty-four-hour classical music on the air in Boston, the government-funded station subsumed it. WCRB, the private station that had been playing classical music since before I was born became WCRB, public radio.

image from NorthEastRadioWatch

Here's the interesting and perhaps surprising part. One might guess from the fact that the old WCRB was privately owned--or merely from the fact that I am a champion of freedom--that I liked it better than the public station, WGBH. But as it happened, that is not the case. I considered WGBH to be superior to WCRB in every conceivable way but one--that one being that it seized part of its funding by force. This exception cannot be shrugged off, of course. On the contrary, the improper use of government force is a far more fundamental issue than any discussion of musical programming; there is utterly no justification for the government to fund any sort of radio programming. (Indeed, I applauded the nearly successful push in Congress to eliminate such funding, which I discuss below.) All I am saying is that in this particular case, rare as it may be for a government to produce anything better than even an incompetent private company, WGBH ate WCRB's lunch, as the saying goes.

My basic problem with the old WCRB was its apparent view of its customers, the listeners. Judging by its narrow selection of music and the content of its self-promotional slogans, the station evidently considered its listeners to be passive and indifferent to the actual music that was played. Evidently, the program directors believed that the average listener not only knewabsolutely nothing about classical music, which is not necessarily a problem, but actually cared nothing for music, period. The outlook was typified by the appalling slogan that the station featured for a while: "Tracks to relax." A soporific male voice would gently intone these words between pieces, as if we had tuned in to hear Barry Manilow. What could be more insulting to a composer or musician than to say his music puts people to sleep? What active listener of music seeks relaxation? Inspiration, joy, intensity, humor, passion, conflict: yes. Lightness and weight, heroism and villainy, elegant simplicity and intricate complexity: yes. Turmoil, solemnity, fury, love, madness, fever, desire: yes. Boredom: no.

Furthermore, considering the vastness of the field of choice--six centuries of great music--WCRB seemed appallingly afraid to venture past a relative handful of familiar standards. They played the same things over and over again, as if they were a Top 40 pop station. If you liked Beethoven, you might have heard a couple of overtures and some of the symphonies, but could not have expected to discover the quartets or other chamber works by listening to WCRB. And since only two of the piano sonatas were ever played on the station, one might have been astonished to find that Beethoven wrote thirty-two of them. Did you wish to hear a Dvorak symphony? Great . . . as long as it was the Ninth. A regular listener of the old WCRB might well think that Sibelius had composed only two pieces: a symphony (curiously labeled No. 2) and Finlandia. The Variations on a Theme by Haydn seemed to be played ten times more than any other of Brahms' works, and though I rather like it, it is arguably the least interesting piece out of dozens that I adore from this rare genius. Surely the station must have done market research in an attempt to understand its customers. Perhaps this sort of "Top 40" handling of a vast repertoire is really what the majority demanded, but I find it hard to believe, and I am curious to know if the station failed for these reasons.

image from WCRB Facebook page

In contrast to the old private WCRB, the new government-funded WCRB is continuing the tradition of its WGBH parent. It does not treat its listeners (I cannot say customers, since this noble classification applies only to voluntary exchanges) as passive seekers of relaxation. The station plays a wide selection of music, provides intelligent and insightful commentary, and features regular live in-studio performances.

The first self-promotional advertising campaign after the WGBH takeover directly addressed the listeners from the old private station. The series of commercials started with the announcer saying, "If you like this . . ." over the strains of an easily recognized popular piece, followed by, ". . . then you might like this," while a slightly more obscure piece, usually by the same composer, was being played. The obvious attempt was to usher old WCRB listeners into programming that might have been largely unfamiliar to them. The station was, in effect, shaking the listener and shouting, "Wake up! Think! You're not in an elevator any more."

I liked those commercials because they treated listeners with respect. Another set of commercials, however, which boasted that the radio station was "now listener supported," revealed the nature of state-run entities, implicitly assuming that listeners could not (or would not) think critically. (You might be wondering why I keep referring to commercials on a "non-commercial" public station. Yes, public stations have commercials--short interjections that promote the station or thank corporate donors, not to mention those dreadfully long periods of fund-raising. But being "commercial free," government-funded broadcasters simply don't call those interjections commercials in the hopes that you won't notice or at least will be too polite to mention it.)

The claim that the station is "now listener supported" is typical of the Orwellian mendacity of socialists. The truth is, of course, the exact opposite. To make an honest claim, the slogan would have to be, "now non-listener supported." It is only in a free market that businessmen are "supported" by their customers and only by their customers. Advertisers of the old WCRB voluntarily paid for air time in order to reach listeners who would potentially and voluntarily do business with them; nobody was forced to listen to or pay for the existence of the station. It is only now that the government is propping up the radio station that both listeners and non-listeners of the station are compelled to pay for it. If you are an American taxpayer, you are paying for the station I listen to . . . whether or not you like WCRB, hate WCRB, or ever heard of WCRB.

image from CPB web site

Amazingly, there might someday be a happy ending to this story. Defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a notion that would have seemed fantastic to me only a short time ago, is not impossible. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is the parent company of NPR and a source of finances for local "public" stations, received about $430 million last year.) In February, the House passed a measure to eliminate funding for CPB. Though it was shot down in the Senate last week,[1] the fact that defunding state broadcasting is even on the table is encouraging.[2] Perhaps future attempts will succeed.

If the government funding of WCRB is eventually severed, there are two resulting possibilities, both of which are good and just: the radio station will either survive in the free market or it will fail as a coercive entity. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that a free market would not support a good classical radio station in the Boston area. Indeed, I consider it likely that the presence of government-funded WGBH has effectively blocked worthy free-market competitors all these years. (How can a private station that has to balance its books in order to make a profit compete with a station that can take 10% of its funding by force?) It is also conceivable that it is precisely the existence of WGBH that drove its only major private competitor, WCRB, to differentiate itself by "dumbing down" its treatment of classical music. It is highly probable that the new WCRB, severed of federal funds, would continue to exist or be replaced by something even better.

But let us consider the worst possibility of the free market scenario: that no good classical music stations could survive in the Boston area in competition with rock, pop, and country stations. If this is the case, then so be it. It simply means that I will have to find other forms of listening to the music I like--forms of which, thanks entirely to freedom, there are countless other possibilities: compact discs, iTunes, Internet radio, satellite radio, live performances, etc. Notice that in each of these forms, I am choosing to pay for the music I listen to (just as with private stations I indirectly pay by patronizing sponsors). There is utterly no justification for forcing other people to pay for my music.

If and when the new WGBH/WCRB radio station is cut loose from federal funding, I will happily support it financially, something I have (despite temptation) steadfastly refused to do for the many years that they've been reaching into my pocket without my permission. Such as the phrase "public service" has any meaning at all, I hope to see Congress perform the only truly "public service" in broadcasting that it can--by setting it free.


1. "Senate rejects Democratic, Republican spending plans," CBS News, 9 Mar 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20041305-503544.html.

2. The issue of getting the government out of music programming pales in comparison to stripping National Public Radio of state support. The government backing of news and opinion programming is a dangerous threat to freedom of speech.


Michael Garrett said...

Thanks for this very insightful post, Stephen. I really enjoy your writing style.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks, Michael!

Jason said...

The long gap between your pieces is worth the wait as usual. Well-structured, smart writing.

I do have a criticism though. You are breaking philosophic hierarchy by placing so much emphasis on politics and government as such a central force in morality. The whole genius of Ayn Rand's ideas and philosophy is that politics is not the center of morality, that it is a lower branch of philosophy, that active-mindedness, rationality, and self-interest, even if just from a a sense of life level at first, are the core of morality. Unfortunately she often broke this hierarchy itself.

Lack of force or lack of government funding do not make an activity good. NPR should be privately owned, and eventually have no government funding, but to make that an immediate goal would be a rash simplistic move meant to score political points, mostly rhetoric, as the Republicans are making it now.

We should support the intelligent and thoughtful programming at entities like NPR and public (government funded) libraries while making the case intellectually that they should be privately owned. To not use or support such entities, just because they receive government funding, would be to ignore philosophic hierarchy. NPR, just as one example, is mostly good, not mostly bad. Even when making explicitly bad points like focusing so much on supposed lack of regulations during the oil spill, it's generally intellectually rigorous.

In the same way, I have sent a little money, just as a symbol for myself to send more when I have more to give, to the Ayn Rand Institute, which I have gotten a lot out of, even though I have serious objections to what I see as its heavy conservative streak. Their lack of government funding is not a central issue and does not make their activity good.

For me not to make use of and support NPR because of government involvement, or the Ayn Rand Institute because of what I see as its conservatism, would be to abandon the mostly good, active-minded people and serious work at both places. Their largely good traits must be recognized and supported, so they can keep their jobs, so they can pay their bills, so they feel the legitimate pride they should about their work being mostly good and impactful to other active-minded people, so they can continue working, so I can engage with them over time and reason with them and try to explain my problems with them.

Jason said...

Forgot to mention. Really liked this description:

"What active listener of music seeks relaxation? Inspiration, joy, intensity, humor, passion, conflict: yes. Lightness and weight, heroism and villainy, elegant simplicity and intricate complexity: yes. Turmoil, solemnity, fury, love, madness, fever, desire: yes. Boredom: no."

Even when I occasionally listen to lower-level, relatively simpler but more intense stuff like mainstream pop, it's not a mindless, unfocused escape. I like the intricate, intense starkness (or "simplicity") of it.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comment, Jason. I see that I might have been unclear—or at least incomplete—in articulating my position on the quality of “public” versus private businesses. Certainly private enterprises are not automatically better than government-funded enterprises. In my post, I remarked that it is rare for the government to produce anything better than even an incompetent private company, but this does not say that it is impossible to do so. Such an overstatement would constitute an invalid rationalist deduction from a legitimate premise (i.e. “the moral is the practical”), which perhaps is what gives rise to your comment about “breaking philosophic hierarchy.” Free markets can give rise to good companies, bad companies, and everything in between. Political freedom does not guarantee competence; it merely establishes the conditions for competence to thrive.

If I understand you correctly, the essence of your point seems to be well encapsulated by your sentence, “To not use or support such entities, just because they receive government funding, would be to ignore philosophic hierarchy.” Here, in the lumping together of use and support, is probably where we differ in our positions. I think it is absolutely essential to distinguish between using and supporting government-funded entities.

By no means am I saying that I do not use government-funded institutions simply because they are funded by force. On the contrary, my entire post is about how much I have enjoyed and patronized this particular public radio station for years. I went to public schools, stroll through public parks, drive on public roads, and occasionally use public transportation. I could hardly live a normal life for a day without encountering and using some government “service.”

However, I adamantly do not support such government “services.” By support I mean that I do not lend my moral sanction, nor do I surrender any practical support beyond what is already taken as a fee for the government involvement. I paid my tuition to go to the state university; I pay for my ticket to ride the subway. But I refuse to let anything I do lend even tacit approval to the notion that the state should be involved in education, transportation, etc. I go along with such things when I have to because it would be a burden or sacrifice not to, but I won’t help anyone pretend that it is proper. (This is a point that Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff have made many times: One should not martyr oneself just because the government is involved in things that it should not be.)

Donating to WGBH, which I’ve been tempted to do many times, seems like a marginal case because they are only partially funded by the government. (I think I saw somewhere that government funding amounts to about 10% of their total revenue.) But even there, I’ve decided that a donation would signal an approval that I do not wish to give.

Stephen Bourque said...

Good point, Jason, about the enjoyment of other types of music, including more mainstream "pop." My list of musical pleasures is wide and varied, and may even raise some eyebrows. However, as seems to be the case with you, my enjoyment is quite active. My eclecticism might lead some to question my taste, but at least it is not due to mental passivity!